With NLD at the Helm, Public Awaits the Release of Political Prisoners

By San Yamin Aung 1 April 2016

RANGOON — While many celebrated Burma’s long-awaited handover of power on Wednesday, hundreds of jailed dissidents who have agitated for this democratic moment missed out.

“There shouldn’t be any political prisoners under a democratic government,” said Nyan Linn, a former political prisoner and member of the 88 Generation activist group.

Human rights advocates hope that the newly sworn-in National League for Democracy (NLD) government will unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners.

“They [political prisoners] hope to be released before Thingyan [an annual water festival taking place from April 12 to 16] or if not, right after, with presidential amnesty,” Nyan Linn said.

Such a feat would be remarkable this early within the new government’s honeymoon period.

In recent history, Burma’s jails have hardly ever been without political prisoners detained for opposing a repressive military regime that ruled for over half a century. Thousands were killed or jailed for their role in anti-government protests following a 1962 military coup and the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), there are currently 100 political prisoners behind bars and another 420 awaiting trial, including students facing what are seen as arbitrary charges doled out for demanding education reforms.

“Students did nothing wrong. I’m expecting the release of political prisoners, including students, before Thingyan. This would make people very happy,” said Ko Ni, a lawyer.

Ye Htut, the former information minister and a presidential spokesperson, said in November that the President could not interfere in ongoing trials, referring to students who were detained after a crackdown on a protest in Pegu Division’s Letpadan against the National Education Law in 2015.

But Ko Ni said that according to Article 490 of the criminal procedure code, the government can withdraw charges in ongoing cases through the legal officers of the township, and Article 401 allows for the President to commute or suspend sentencing.

“The first thing the new government should do is release political prisoners. And we believe they will, since many former political prisoners are in the new government,” Jimmy, one of the leading members of the 88 Generation group, told The Irrawaddy.

In addition to pushing for the adoption of an official definition of “political prisoner,” many NLD lawmakers, along with formerly jailed dissidents, have indicated that freeing political prisoners will be among the party’s top priorities when it assumes power.

“If the new government doesn’t do this, or if it only does something later, it will be criticized. It must free [political prisoners] because the military-backed government that took power following the 2010 election, which was largely unrecognized by the public, arrested many activists and journalists by using repressive laws,” Nyan Linn said.

Indeed, during his five-year tenure, former President Thein Sein failed to make good on his government’s 2013 pledge to free all political prisoners. According to the AAPP’s Aung Myo Kyaw, 33,522 prisoners were released under Thein Sein’s rule, 1,200 of which were political prisoners. Thein Sein’s government also granted 19 presidential amnesties.

But there is caution to be had. Aung Myo added that although it is likely that the NLD will prioritize the release of political prisoners, the army still has constitutionally-enshrined control over three powerful ministries, including the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is in charge of the police force as well as the country’s prison departments.

Moreover, while Article 204(a) of the 2008 Constitution vaguely states that the President is afforded the “power to grant a pardon,” another clause suggests that presidential amnesties may require the involvement of the National Defense Security Council, which is effectively under army control, even with Aung San Suu Kyi, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, holding a seat on the powerful executive body.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs is key. Its collaboration is important,” said Aung Myo Kyaw.

“But if the President has the authority to do so [as some legal frameworks say], all political prisoners can be released. The question is if this power lies with the President or army chief.”